Back when the Nazis were running roughshod over his homeland, Bertolt Brecht wrote a short poem that asked, "In the dark times, will there still be singing?" And it gave a reply: "Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times."
Of course, there are many ways of singing about darkness. One is to celebrate hope. That's what's on offer in HBO's David Byrne's American Utopia, a joyous blend of song, dance and revival meeting. The film, which captures a live performance of Byrne's acclaimed Broadway show, was directed by Spike Lee.
Now, Spike might not be the first person you'd expect to click with Byrne, a guy I don't exactly picture yelling courtside at a Knicks game. Yet Lee is terrific at filming live performances, and his swooping, shrewdly observant camera meshes perfectly with Byrne's layered and rousing sense of musical theater. This is one show you can dance to.
American Utopia starts with Byrne, barefoot in a silver-gray suit, holding a model of the brain and pondering different ideas of connection. He's gradually joined by his equally barefoot co-stars, also uniformed in silver-gray suits, who sing, dance and play hand-held instruments as they perform nearly 20 Byrne songs, from his Talking Heads classics to his more recent solo work. Thanks to wireless technology, everyone moves around the stage in seemingly total freedom.
Byrne's work has long been obsessed with the many ways of being imprisoned—in oneself, in an addiction to things, in a meaningless life—and equally attuned to different forms of escape. American Utopia features a series of songs that ask questions about the meaning of home. The answers range from the welcoming good spirits of "Everybody's Coming to My House" to the rowdier energies found in Talking Heads' party song "Burning Down the House."